Michael Pavitt

April sees a batch of Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 test events take place, along with a host of Olympic qualifiers and a UK based rollout of pilot projects aimed at helping return sporting events back to normality. No pressure then.

For the reasons listed above this month feels particularly important for both the short and long-term.

The build-up to Tokyo 2020 continues to chug along with one day offering several reasons to be optimistic that the Games can take place, only to be followed by a day when a section of the Torch Relay gets cancelled and the fate of an International Swimming Federation test event becomes unclear.

On the optimistic side, a two-day wheelchair rugby test event concluded today in Tokyo, with a reported 100 people participating under a series of COVID-19 countermeasures.

The event was the first official test held by Tokyo 2020 since the Olympic and Paralympic Games were postponed last year, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Sport climbing's test event at the Aomi Urban Sports Park was the last to be held in March 2020.

Qualifiers have taken place in recent weeks in archery, football, handball, table tennis and wrestling, while several other sports have either relaunched their qualification series or confirmed dates for qualifiers.

COVID-19 continues to dominate the events, as despite more quota places being confirmed for the Games there are issues over fairness.

For instance, a Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football qualifier last month had a farcical situation involving Haiti. The Haitian team was forced to start the game with just 10 players and an outfield player in goal against Mexico.

The chaos was caused by the squad arriving late in Mexico, with the team then required to wait for coronavirus test results. The Haitians could only bring on a full-time goalkeeper mid-game, once his coronavirus test came back negative.

Olympic qualifiers have continued in recent weeks ©Getty Images
Olympic qualifiers have continued in recent weeks ©Getty Images

Brazilian, French and German judokas were among those to be caught up in COVID-19 cases at recent events across Tbilisi and Antalya. With International Judo Federation events offering qualification points for the Games, any missed opportunity will serve as a blow to athletes.

The subject was highlighted in an interesting position paper published by Athleten Deutschland, the independent athletes group from Germany.

"Athletes who choose not to participate due to reasonable safety concerns or who are unable to participate due to quarantine measures or a positive test should be given an alternative opportunity by their National Olympic Committee or International Federation to qualify by providing the necessary proof of performance," Athleten Deutschland said.

"If qualifying events have to be cancelled altogether due to the pandemic, fair and comprehensible criteria for nomination should be developed together with the athletes or their representatives."

As written previously, it has been claimed that a number of contingency plans are in place should qualification events be cancelled. Undoubtedly there will be a debate over whether the process is fair, should these come to pass.

The Athleten Deutschland position paper looked ahead to the potential issues that could be experienced at the Games, with the group putting forward requests to be considered for the second version of the Tokyo 2020 playbook, which is due to be published this month.

This included suggesting that competitions could potentially be postponed at short notice during the Olympic and Paralympic Games, in the event that a close contact forces several athletes in a competition to be quarantined. The group said detailed scenarios should be worked out in advance.

It will be fascinating to see if such an idea becomes reality, given the issues it would raise. For instance, how many athletes would need to be impacted for an event to be postponed. Would the rankings/status of athletes have any impact, say for instance that one or two of the favourites for the 100m title were affected.

Postponements of team sports could ultimately leave the competition in tatters. Yet walkovers or withdrawals, similar to those experienced at the handball qualifiers, would leave many questioning the integrity of the events.

You must wonder whether broadcasters would agree for increased flexibility.

The women's handball qualifiers for Tokyo 2020 saw two teams withdraw prior to the events ©Getty Images
The women's handball qualifiers for Tokyo 2020 saw two teams withdraw prior to the events ©Getty Images

Athleten Deutschland also raised the important question about the potential sanctions for athletes who violate the playbook's code of conduct, including the possibility of exclusion from the Games. The group suggest the next version should outline rules of procedure and a detailed list of sanctions.

The next update from the IOC and Tokyo 2020 is due at the end of the month, with organisers promising more sport specific protocols will be in place.

Another interesting point raised in the Athleten Deutschland paper this week was the organisation suggesting that a "general discussion is now required as to whether athletes who represent Germany internationally should be vaccinated as soon as the currently prioritised groups have received doses."

The group suggested that a strategy must already be in place and carefully prepared, should this be approved.

I do wonder whether Richard Pound may have raised a smile had he seen the suggestion, after the Canadian International Olympic Committee (IOC) member was met with criticism for essentially the same comment in January.

While the vaccination process is likely to help Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022, IOC President Thomas Bach was right when he said it would not be a silver bullet for the Games to go ahead.

We may get an early glimpse of potential impact of the vaccine for sport this month. The United Kingdom is set to roll out a series of pilot events as part of a research project, following a better than expected vaccination programme.

The Events Research Programme pilots are taking place in April and May, with limited spectators to be present at three football events, as well as a comedy club, an outdoor cinema and a nightclub. These events are expected to offer data which will enable the Government to outline how restrictions could be safely lifted, with a vaccine passport among the mooted ideas.

London Marathon Events will participate in pilots in the UK, which could help unlock the return to normal sporting events ©Getty Images
London Marathon Events will participate in pilots in the UK, which could help unlock the return to normal sporting events ©Getty Images

London Marathon Events will also be participating, with three separate 10 kilometre races set to take place on April 24 to 25 at Hatfield Park in Hertfordshire. The event has been dubbed as the Reunion 10K.

"The Government’s Events Research Programme is a very significant step towards the safe return of events and London Marathon Events, along with our fellow mass participation event organisers, is doing everything we can to assist the Government with this project," said Hugh Brasher, event director of London Marathon Events.

"We would like to thank everyone involved for their support in putting on the Reunion 10K at Hatfield Park."

The event will see around 3,000 participants and up to 3,000 spectators in each of the three races. Each race will be configured slightly differently to capture the most data.

Participants, spectators and staff will be required to take a COVID-19 test before and after the event. All will be asked if they have been vaccinated, although vaccination will not be a requirement.

London Marathon Events involvement is understandable, given the organisation were forced to cancel last year’s mass participation race at the London Marathon. Successful test events would surely provide them with hope this year’s scheduled event in October can take place in one configuration or another.

The success of test events this month, coupled with vaccination efforts, could offer encouragement across the UK and beyond that sporting events may not have to run the gauntlet Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 currently are in the future.